GREENFIELD — Samuel Gardner wants to be farmer.
He’s always wanted to be a farmer, to be out in the fields working the earth, growing acres of crops while raising cows and pigs and whatever other livestock comes his way.
It’s a dream he’s chased for as long as he can remember, he said. He followed it from his little hometown an hour outside of Fort Wayne to the rural east side of Hancock County. And after crossing the graduation stage this week, accepting his diploma from Eastern Hancock High School, he’ll keep with that pursuit until he can finally ride a tractor full time.
Halfway through his high school career, the 18-year-old – with his mother’s blessing – moved to Greenfield to live with a couple he’d met, come to know and love while showing hogs across the Midwest. He would leave behind his friends and the home he’d known to make pursuing a career in farming a reality at a school with a rich history of agriculture.
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While attending Eastern Hancock for the last year and half, he helped Justin and Annie Grinstead run their Greenfield farm, learning from Justin the skills he’d need for a successful agricultural career and soaking up Annie’s positivity and light, he said.
Though nerve-wracking at first, it’s been a great experience, the teen said. Now, he’s off to Lake Land College in Mattoon, Illinois, to study agronomy, the science of soil management and crop production.
“I’m really glad that I moved,” he said. “I think it’s something that’s helped me become a better person. It was a challenge and a change.”
Gardner was born and raised in Wabash, a town of about 10,000 residents that sits along the Wabash River on the north end of Central Indiana.
It’s a rural community, his mother, Kathy Gardner, said. Her late husband was a farmer, and Gardner found joy in helping his father out in the field, riding the tractor and caring for different animals.
Gardner’s father died when he was 10 years old, Kathy Gardner said. She recalls one night, with tears running down his cheeks, her son coming to her in his grief and wondering aloud who would teach him to be a farmer now.
Kathy Gardner promised her son that day that she would always find him good people who could teach him the lessons his father so valued. She put him in 4-H, where he showed pigs and learned what he could from the men and women who made their living in farming.
Somewhere along the way, when Gardner was about 12, the family met Justin and Annie Grinstead of Greenfield. Something between the couple and the Gardners just clicked.
The Grinsteads immediately took a liking to Gardner, Annie Grinstead said. He was the sweetest child, with a kind and compassionate nature. He was eager to learn and happy to help with whatever task was handed to him.
“We just fell in love with him,” Annie Grinstead said. “He was our son, too.”
As years passed, and the Gardners’ friendship with the Grinsteads grew, Gardner started spending summers in Greenfield, living on the couple’s farm.
Kathy Gardner said she was never reluctant to let Samuel visit Hancock County for weeks at a time. She treasured the Grinsteads as if they were family and knew they would give her son an experience she couldn’t, always remembering that promise she’d made to her 10-year-old son.
And Gardner, too, loved the time he was able to spend in Greenfield. He never wanted to return to Wabash when the fall rolled around, he said. Eventually, he got up the nerve to ask his mom if he could live with the Grinsteads full time.
There was nothing new in Wabash for him, he said. He wanted to go somewhere he felt he’d be challenged, where he could learn new skills and meet new people.
It didn’t take long for his mother to agree, she said.
If that’s want he wanted to be happy, what he needed to succeed, she wanted him to have the opportunity, she said.
“I’ve never seen my kids as my possessions; they are gifts from God,” Kathy Gardner said. “I couldn’t give him that life on the farm he wanted. It was hard, but I think I made the best choice for him.”
By Christmas of 2015, Gardner had moved to Greenfield and enrolled in Eastern Hancock High School.
The first few weeks — the second semester of his junior year — were difficult, he admitted. It was strange to try to settle into a little school, the smallest in the county, where many of his classmates had known each other more than a decade.
But the students were as kind as the teachers and they were helpful and encouraging, he said. He recalled his first day, settling into a desk in his first-hour math class. After glancing around the room a bit nervously, he heard a classmate’s voice in his ear.
“It’s OK. I was the new kid once, too. You’ll be fine.”
From there, he thrived, Annie Grinstead said.
He got good grades and made new friends, she said. And the Grinsteads came to learn that his extra pair of hands had arrived on their farm just in time.
About a month into Gardner’s stay with the couple, Annie Grinstead was diagnosed with a rare form of breast cancer. As she underwent chemotherapy, lost her hair and fought every day to stay positive, Gardner stepped right into her shoes, she said, picking up the slack whether it was out on the farm or around the house.
“I can’t imagine the fear he must have felt,” Annie Grinstead said. “But … he said to me, ‘This is where I’m supposed to be, and I’m not going anywhere.’”
“He was a gift to me,” she added.
But from Gardner’s perspective, it is the Grinstead family that saved him. If the Grinsteads hadn’t opened their home to him, he’s sure his interest in school would have dried up, sure he never would have found the drive he needed to head to Illinois and pursue a college degree. He worries he would have given up, let his dream fall by the wayside.
“I’ll never be able to express how thankful I am,” he said.